Story: Life in the 1930s is hard for the African-American residents of Catfish Row, an impoverished area of Charleston, South Carolina that survives on fishing, picking cotton and other hardscrabble means of subsistence. It’s even tougher for Porgy, who was born with a withered left leg that hinders his ability to find manual labor but whose congeniality elevates the spirits of his neighbors.
When Crown, a hulking, glowering man with a chip on his shoulder, accuses his neighbor Robbins of cheating in a craps game, he kills Robbins and flees to nearby Kittiwah Island before authorities arrive. Before leaving, though, he warns “his” woman, the high-living Bess, that he’ll return for her soon.
Seeking a place to stay, Bess is befriended by Porgy, despite the warnings of the strong-willed Mariah that Bess is a woman of loose morals and a junkie to boot, courtesy of the fancy-dressing Sporting Life. Porgy and Bess fall in love, but can that love stand up to Crown’s tyranny and Sporting Life’s constant temptations?
Highlights: The touring company production playing at The Muny this week is a dish that’s been seasoned by many chefs. First of all, it’s titled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess to differentiate from the original folk opera composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin and a libretto by DuBose Heyward. The latter based his words on a play he had written with his wife Dorothy Heyward that was in turn inspired by DuBose Heyward’s novel, Porgy.
Second, this 2011 Broadway revival has been edited from the opera’s original four hours down to a more comfortable two hours and 30 minutes, plus a 15-minute intermission, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks, director Diane Paulus and composer Diedre Murray.
Winner of the 2011 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, this version of Porgy and Bess features a cast filled with magnificent singers who caress, coax and command Ira Gershwin’s folksy lyrics and capture the essence of George Gershwin’s musical genius, no easy feat considering the difficulty of his music.
Other Info: The Muny has performed Porgy and Bess just three previous times in its 97-year existence, in 1964, 1977 and 1988. It’s rarely staged elsewhere here, most recently by Union Avenue Opera in 2007.
Perhaps part of the reason is the work’s controversial history, termed ‘racist’ and ‘stereotyped’ by its detractors. For his part, George Gershwin was enthralled with Heyward’s novel and was determined to write a folk opera infused with jazz and blues idioms.
It’s an extremely complicated work, and much of the time Gershwin’s elaborate and intricate compositions are beyond the scope of anyone attuned to more popular music, which includes a lot of us. The streamlined version put together by Parks, Paulus and Murray resonates thanks to their collection of extremely talented singers who make this rendition soar.
Each of the five major roles benefits from some wonderful singing. Nathaniel Stampley, e.g., is affecting and achingly persuasive as the genial Porgy. His delivery of I Got Plenty of Nothing is buoyant and exhilarating in his upbeat, affirmative rendition.
Perhaps the best voice in the cast is possessed by Danielle Lee Greaves, whose Mariah is a formidable force of nature, shaking a stern finger at the “low-lifes” who deviate from the straight and narrow path she advocates. When she belts out I Hates Your Strutting Style, it’s with an admonition that even Sporting Life recognizes.
Former St. Louisan Kingsley Leggs, who elevated many a Black Rep production several years ago, does a smooth version of It Ain’t Necessarily So as the scheming Sporting Life, playing the decadent dandy as a constant enticement for the fragile Bess. His urbane villainy is complemented by Alvin Crawford’s imposing, unsettling nastiness as the crude and abusive Crown.
And Alicia Hall Moran makes Bess a subject of pity more than scorn or repudiation as she underscores both Bess’ willful intentions to change into a better woman for Porgy and her weakness in succumbing to the overpowering temptations of the flesh.
Riccardo Hernandez’ set design is simplistic stuff, drab walls indicating the shacks that serve as homes along Catfish Row, lit by Christopher Akerlind. ESosa provides the plain costuming as well as Sporting Life’s fancy duds, and Acme Sound Partners furnish the wailing hurricane that wreaks havoc. Dale Rieling is musical conductor.
Ronald K. Brown’s choreography is vibrant and takes full advantage of the spacious Muny stage on various ensemble numbers, while Paulus’ direction is focused and well paced, particularly in the first act.
Set, lighting and sound design are adapted to The Muny stage by Robert Mark Morgan, Rob Denton, Jason Krueger and Nathan Scheuer (video), respectively.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is an updated, streamlined, invigorating version of a complex folk opera that accentuates the musical genius and versatility that was George Gershwin.
Musical: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through July 13
Tickets: Free to $85; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Michael J. Lutch